Dark Ambient Ritual Music: A Primer for the Dark Pagan   8 comments

Dark treeAs a passionate and longtime fan of dark ambient music, I am sometimes asked what artists, tracks, and online resources I would recommend for those who are just starting to explore the genre.

One dark ambient track I like  (raison d’être, Ascension de Profundis) has been called “monastic ambient.”  I think this characterisation is particularly appropriate for Pagans and devotees of the dark divine.  It is music that rewards close, meditative attention; it takes the listener on a journey through the shadow self.  This is atmospheric music for mystics and contemplatives who know that sublime gifts are sometimes found by those who have the courage to venture into dark, cold, and mournful places.  Ultra-low rumbling bass frequencies, lots of reverb, and layers of pure sonic darkness stir emotions that live deep in the bones and flesh.  Good dark ambient is evocative, reverent, profound, melancholy, haunting, trancelike…otherworldly, and terrestrial at the same time.  It is very much music of the soul for me.

When I’m asked why I do ritual dance to dark ambient music – after all, most of these tracks were not made with dance in mind – I explain that one of the reasons is to use movement to bear witness to our grief over the state of the earth.  We carry so much of this primal grief in our bodies, much of it unconscious, and there are few outlets for it in our culture.  There is bone-deep sadness lurking beneath our collective façade, but it is all too rare that we acknowledge it, and rarer still that we face it head-on.  This grief lives in us because we live in a toxic consumer culture that is destroying our natural habitat.  Yet we are too often convinced that there is something wrong with us, and so many of us end up trying to numb our pain with alcohol, food, compulsive sex, or workaholism. Anything so we don’t have to confront the fact that we are collectively complicit in the rape and destruction of the living earth that is our ultimate source of sustenance.

Ritual dance movement to mournful dark ambient music is one of the ways I try to give expression to this deep grief.  It is difficult emotional and physical work, yet so very necessary.

I’ve compiled a list, with YouTube links and comments, of 13 dark ambient tracks that still inspire me to dance and send chills up my spine after many hundreds of listens.  Every track on this list is one that I consider utterly magnificent.

If you like what you hear, check out the themed playlists (e.g, Dark Earth & Chthonic, Serpentine, Nordic Winter, The Dark Pagan Monastic, Abandoned Places) I put together on my profile at last.fm – these playlists are the “soundtrack” at the Hermitage.

Dark ambient is a very obscure musical genre, and I think it deserves to be much more widely appreciated.

13 Top-Notch Dark Ambient Tracks

1)     Ulf SöderbergNow Night Her Course Began

This, to me, is what truly religious music should sound like.  “Magnificent” is an understatement!  When I hear this track, I envision a ritual procession of Pagan monastics in black hooded robes, each holding a candle, incense, or prayer book, paying homage to the dark divine.

2)     ApoptoseNidstång

Wondering if you’ll like dark ambient?  Start here.  Make sure you’re alone and won’t be interrupted.  Turn the volume up and let yourself be carried away by this incredible music.  If you don’t like this track, I’d say dark ambient is probably not the genre for you.

3)     Desiderii MarginisDeadbeat I

This was the first track that ever inspired me to choreograph moody dark fusion and ritual dance pieces to dark ambient music. At the time, the idea sounded…questionable, to say the very least. I knew of no one else who danced to music like this. But I knew it was what I wanted and needed to do, and I’ve never looked back.  The bone church in the video is amazing too.

4)     Ulf SöderbergNordvinterögon

Söderberg is a musical genius.  There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to describe the beauty of this track.  Seriously.  Stop reading this right now and go listen.  You can thank me later.

5)     SephirothWolftribes

Primal, creepy, and completely compelling.  This is one of the first tracks that inspired the choreography I do for my ritual dance project, Shrine of Skaði.  Have I mentioned that Ulf Söderberg (who also records under the name Sephiroth) is a genius?

6)     Herbst9Blood Whisper

Ritualistic and earthy.  I originally selected another Herbst9 track for this list, “The Snake of Saigon,” but that track isn’t available on YouTube, so I picked another that I consider equally superb.

7)     SkadiThe Awakening

Combining the music of my all-time favourite dark ambient musician (whose project is named after the goddess I am closest to) with the artwork of one of my top favourite artists, Zdzisław Bekśiński?  Brilliant.  Truly, it doesn’t get much better than this.  Put the video on full screen while you listen and immerse yourself.

8)     New Risen ThroneBlowing Funeral Chant

Aptly named – profoundly solemn, cold and creepy.  The imagery in the accompanying video suits the track perfectly too.

9)     VestigialThe Coming

The album this track is taken from – Translucent Communion – is without a doubt one of my favourite dark ambient albums ever.  Every track on it is amazing, and my appreciation for it only grows deeper with each listen.

10)  raison d’êtreIn Abandoned Places

I love raison d’être in general, but there is something about this track in particular that leaves me breathless. It made me weep the first time I heard it, and every additional listen brings with it another layer of mournful depth. And the video with the artwork of abandoned places is the perfect accompaniment.

Note: I didn’t care for the bell-ringing intro when I first heard this track, but over time I’ve come to appreciate it much more.  If you have an initial reaction similar to mine, skip the first two minutes and listen to the rest of it.  The low bass frequencies in the rest of this track are absolutely sublime.

11)  Lapis NigerInside the Black Pearl – Lapis Niger

Hail the dark divine!  Incredible and mesmerising dark esoteric ritual ambient.  Not to be missed.

12)  Lamia VoxLapis Occultus

Sinister and beautiful audio witchcraft…a 2-minute intro builds anticipation.  Definitely one of her best tracks, and one I often use for ritual dance.  This track is available for free download through Kalpamantra.

Lapis Occultus, the Hidden Stone, is another term for the goal of the alchemical quest.”
~ John Michael Greer, Inside a Magical Lodge

13)  Herbst9The Tide

Perfect for trance and ritual.  This incredible track – one of their best! – was only released on a sampler album with 100 copies pressed, so good luck finding it on disc.  Fortunately, there’s YouTube.

If you’d like to explore more on your own, here is a loosely organised list of resources on dark ambient music (labels, blogs, forums, media, streaming radio, playlists, etc.) that I’ve compiled in recent years.  It’s not intended to be comprehensive – I’m sure there are plenty of great resources missing from this list that I don’t know about.  Please feel free to add suggestions!


For The Innermost
Not to be missed for dark ambient fans.  By far my favourite dark ambient blog.  Excellent writing, photos, and interviews!

Die Militarmusik Forum
Link goes directly to the dark ambient section of the forum.

Guide to dark ambient subgenres

Xiled Radio
Streaming radio by professional club DJs, with many shows focused on dark ambient.  Outstanding selection of dark ambient tracks.

Dark Ambient Radio

Drakulady’s YouTube channel
Very nicely curated selection of dark ambient music and beautiful videos.

Esoteric Sanctuary
“Dark & grimm esoteric music.”  Features dark ambient and other genres.  No longer updated as far as I can tell, but there’s plenty of good material in the archives.

Wounds of the Earth blogzine

Ritual Dark Ambient
Facebook group

Dark Music Domain
Online store with good prices and a good selection of dark ambient artists.

Equilibrium Music:

Spectrum Magazine
Archives for a long out-of-print ambient / industrial / experimental / power electronics / neo-folk music culture magazine.  Contains interviews with Isomer, raison d’être and others.

Recommended playlists compiled by other dark ambient fans:

Gravedigger Playlist: Best Dark Ambient Albums from 2010 on
Haunted Spaces:  100 Best Dark Ambient Albums 2000-2009

Anyone happen to know what happened to darkambient.ge?  If so, please comment and let me know, as I am compiling information for a book on dark ambient music and would love to get in touch with the owner of the site.  It was an excellent resource – one of the best, although it needed some editing and proofreading.  The site and Facebook page seem to have vanished without a trace, much to my disappointment.

(Update, added 15 January 2013: It’s back!  Apparently the site has a new owner.  I’m delighted!) 

(…and another update, added 10 July 2013: The site is gone once again.  Sigh.)


8 responses to “Dark Ambient Ritual Music: A Primer for the Dark Pagan

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  1. great list, thanks for posting. btw i’d add lustmord, robert rich , tool maybe

    • Thanks! I’m glad you liked it. These tracks were chosen for this list because they still inspire visions of the numinous and make me want to dance even after hundreds of listens. I did think about including the Robert Rich & Lustmord track “Undulating Terrain” from the Stalker album – and of course Lustmord has plenty of tracks I love that could have been included here too. The “Heresy” album is what originally got me into dark ambient in the early ’90s. But I wanted to stop at 13 tracks…and some of the others I would have chosen (e.g., Skadi, “Gone in Silence,” which never fails to move me to tears) aren’t currently available on YouTube.

      Can’t say I’m a fan of Tool, and I would not consider them “dark ambient” at all – the closest thing to it that I know about from Tool’s catalogue would probably be the Lustmord remix of “Schism,” but I don’t like the guitars in that piece. With a few notable exceptions, in general I don’t care for vocals or guitars in dark ambient music.

  2. Pingback: Dark Ambient Music, Art, and Culture | The Black Stone Hermitage

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  4. The previous poster was probably referring to the tracks that appear in most Tool albums as connecting pieces to other tracks. They’re an important part of Tool’s overall sound, but if you’re not a fan you’d probably never know as they obviously don’t make it onto radio or into discussions about the project. Still, I wouldn’t consider them dark ambient pieces. Industrial would even be a bit of a reach.

    Glad you included Ulf Söderberg. He single-handedly had enough impact on me to bring me to the genre. I began in music as a percussionist at five years old, and the first time that I heard his tribal rhythms backdropping that ephemeral surrealist atmosphere that he’s known for, I was hooked. He doesn’t get enough respect for his work. That said, the genre seems to have unfortunately been in decline in regards to interest levels for some time now. Karsten Hamre (Dense Vision Shrine, Pentinent, Veiled Allusions), for example, is also a master of the genre and simply gets left out of conversations all the time. Sam will tell you that hipster culture is invading Dark Ambient in a separate scene away from the traditional projects that I’m used to — you should talk to him some time about it.

    With Cold Meat Industry falling, interest in the genre has turned towards Cyclic Law and their incredible releases as of late. That said, very little interest seems to be spreading elsewhere right now. Cisfinitum is another incredible project in my opinion, but you’ll only very rarely hear him brought up. Tor Lundvall as well, though many (myself included) would be hesitant to refer to him as *dark* ambient. He embodies something else entirely as can be seen through his seasonal pieces.

    Everyone’s obsessed with folk right now, it seems. The trends will change in the next few years as they always do and perhaps dark ambient will have another time to shine. As I mentioned earlier though, with the hipsters invading, maybe it’s just shining in another area right now that is beyond my scope of understanding. I’m not a part of their culture so the “new things” in the genre are somewhat lost to me as far as trends are concerned.

    Keep up the good work with these articles. Glad to see someone promoting the genre on their own with dedication and passion.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment at length, Sage, and thanks for the clarification about the Tool tracks mentioned by the previous commenter. As a dark fusion dancer, I am approaching this series of posts about dark ambient music with different sensibilities than a journalist or musician would, so I appreciate the perspective. I select tracks for inclusion here based almost entirely on how deeply and irresistibly they move me to dance, and how well they suit the ritual space I want to create for my dance.

      I am definitely out of the loop regarding trends in underground music, so it’s helpful to hear your perspective on that too. I wasn’t aware that folk was the big thing right now. I know dark ambient has always had a minuscule following, but from where I sit, it seems that interest in the genre has been growing, slowly but steadily. The ritual dark ambient group on Facebook – where I participate and contribute regularly – has about 3500 members internationally as of this writing, and it has grown a lot in the past year. On the other hand, though, I can count on one hand the number of people I know through the industrial scene in Portland (where I live) who are interested enough in dark ambient to do things like keep up with new releases or attend shows. I’m not even sure if there’s ever been a live show in Portland that could rightfully be called dark ambient. The Lovecraft Bar does have a dark ambient/noise night once a month that features some local DJs and musicians, but as far as I know that’s about the extent of the local “scene” – if it can even be called that. Once, at an iVardensphere show, I was talking to Scott Fox (who is a fellow Ulf Söderberg fan) about dark ambient music, and he asked me what the scene is like here. My response was: “Scene? What scene?”

      Regarding Ulf Söderberg – I am amazed that an accomplished and brilliant musician like him is not more well-known. Do you have any idea whether he plans to release anything new as Ulf Söderberg or Sephiroth? I don’t recall ever hearing an announcement from him that these projects were kaput, so I’m still holding out hope for new material from him. Last time I checked his professional website, I got the impression that he was focusing almost entirely on commercial projects such as film soundtracks, but perhaps he keeps his commercial work and his other projects separate. Even if he has no plans to make any new Ulf Söderberg/Sephiroth albums, though, I’d still love to see his older albums re-released. I think his music richly deserves to be more widely appreciated. I feel this way about Skadi’s music, too, so I’m encouraging Alex to get some of his unreleased work out there.

      I enjoy Karsten Hamre’s work, and although I haven’t featured any of it in this series of posts, a few months ago I did post a photo of one of my dark ambient shrines that features the Dense Vision Shrine album “A Voyage of Imagination.” And Cisfinitum’s track “District Delta,” a heartbreaking track which still makes me weep after countless listens, is in the queue for one of my future posts. As for Tor Lundvall, I’m only vaguely familiar with his work. Admittedly, though, my tastes lean strongly toward really REALLY dark ambient. I describe the music that stirs up the most passionate responses in me as “chthonic ritual doom ambient” – primal, apocalyptic, occult music that sounds as if it’s emerged from the subterranean depths of the Earth. Examples: Hyios, Herbst9, New Risen Throne, and Vestigial.

      I had no idea that “hipsters” were becoming interested in dark ambient. I’m an old-school middle-aged rivethead, and I have no connection whatsoever to anything that could be called “hip.” I’ll ask Sam about it sometime. I’m definitely interested to hear more, since I have plans to write a book on dark ambient music culture, and I’m putting together a book proposal for this project. If you have any input on this, I’d love to hear it.

      Cyclic Law is well-positioned to take up some of the slack left behind by Cold Meat Industry’s departure, I think. Definitely my favourite label, for a number of reasons, and I’m thrilled to hear that Frederic is starting Cyclic Press. I trust his artistic vision and respect his dedication to quality, and as always, I’m excited to see what he has in store. Looking forward to the upcoming Taphephobia album on Cyclic Law in the autumn.

      Thanks for the encouragement to keep writing. There will definitely be several more posts in this series, since dark ambient is the music that moves me to dance most frequently. In some ways, it baffles me that this awesome music isn’t more widely appreciated. Of course I realise that dark ambient will never draw huge audiences, but I do think there are many more people who would appreciate it…if only they knew about it!

  5. Pingback: Dark Ambient Ritual Music: A Primer for the Dark Pagan, Volume 3 | The Black Stone Hermitage

  6. Pingback: New Article on Underrated Dark Ambient Albums | The Black Stone Hermitage

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